REFLECTIONS Items left behind at a house on the South Side of Providence.
When Providence-based photographer David H. Wells set out to document the American foreclosure crisis, he started by snapping photos of workers as they cleaned repossessed houses in California's central valley in 2009. As he began shooting, though, he found the objects in the houses more compelling than the workers. Since that first trip, his ever-expanding "Foreclosed Dreams" project — which opens at the Yellow Peril Gallery in Providence April 18 — has focused on items, not people. Sandals. Polaroids. Pacifiers. Bullet casings. Karate trophies. Broken chairs. Birthday cards. A crumpled American flag. A rain-soaked book called Bad Beginnings to Happy Endings. And of course the empty houses, themselves, with plywood-boarded windows and countertops dusted with plaster.
"I'm really trying hard to get what I think are the ghosts of the people who used to be in those houses," Wells says of his excursions into more than 500 homes across 15 states, including Rhode Island. He was speaking from Arizona, where his work on "Dreams" continues. The tech-savvy Wells — who runs a free photo instruction podcast series and blog called "The Wells Point" — responded to my emailed questions by recording webcam videos of himself and summoning photographs onto the screen as he spoke. The interview has been edited and condensed.
YOU INTENTIONALLY LEFT THE INHABITANTS OF THESE HOUSES OUT OF THE PHOTOS. DID YOU EVER COME INTO CONTACT WITH THOSE PEOPLE? If I were to have photographed people actually being evicted, my experience having worked in a newspaper or photojournalism for a long time was that, unfortunately, when [viewers] see an individual undergoing a particular experience they have a very, very nasty tendency to sort of look and say, "Oh, it's that person's experience," and not necessarily make it part of their own. I really wanted people to look at this work and put their own thinking, brain, heart, childhood, life experience, etcetera, into the photographs. By not having people in the photographs, I think I made them more open-ended.
HOW DID WHAT YOU SAW IN RHODE ISLAND COMPARE TO WHAT YOU SAW AND SHOT ELSEWHERE? I mostly photographed in Providence. A little bit in Warwick, a little bit in Woonsocket. I think probably the biggest difference compared to somewhere else — and this is not a great surprise — [was], because the houses generally in Rhode Island are so much older, there's a lot more history and sort of multiple layers of things that you'd find in some of the houses.
I photographed one [house] in Warwick where as the guys who were removing the stuff were going through, they found a box, actually, of old family letters from we guessed the grandfather to somebody — the grandmother, maybe. And we didn't want to throw them out, so I actually took them and one of my long-term goals is actually to get them to the Rhode Island Historical Society. Or maybe get them back to the family. Because it's a waste to just throw them away.